[Review] Aphex Twin – Syro


I have been an Aphex Twin fan for fifteen years. I was fifteen when I first heard ‘Come to Daddy,’ and it was my gateway drug into electronic music. It was him that inspired me to dive into the world that I now immerse myself in everyday as a composer and as a listener. His work has played a vital role in my musical education and formation.

I attended the preview Syro album listening event at Verboten in NYC Saturday afternoon and these are my thoughts.

I’ve frequented Verboten at least once every couple of weeks since moving to New York earlier in the summer, so I knew I was in for a treat to get to hear this album on a well-tuned, proper club sound system. The scene was basically a couple hundred nerds standing in mostly silence, listening to an album in a dark club in the middle of an afternoon. It was simple, and pretty right on.

Right off the bat, this album is FAST and DENSE. Most of the songs are around about jungle tempo, and the corresponding drum programming and sound design that we’re all familiar with when he’s at this speed are both present. There is never a dull moment, and the sound palate is an absolute barrage of music. It is frenetic throughout but controlled and precise.

As Richard D. James has stated in interviews about the album, the pieces comprising Syro were recorded independently of one another over the course of a decade or so. Thus, it’s no surprise that the pieces stand alone and they don’t necessarily “flow” when listened back to back in album form. But that said, they are still consistent, cohesive, and make sense together.

The writing is not terribly different from the faster pieces in Drukqs or Analord 10 & 11. There are not many great departures from the later Aphex catalog as far as composition, except that there is more of it and it is even more active and sonically thick. Previously released pieces “Last Rushup 10,” “Fenix Funk 5,” and “Ziggomatic V17,” would not sound out of place on Syro.

There is a similar emotional mood throughout: seasick detuning on the chords and melodies, sound design that is constantly moving, funky driving bass sounds, and frantic yet tight drum programming. The melodic content is contemplative and often mysterious but not confusing. The harmonic content is rarely dissonant and harsh but it’s also hardly comforting. James’ work can occasionally feel alienating and dissociative, but that’s part of his appeal to those of us who enjoy his work. This album contains more of that foreign, strange writing that is so unique to him. At times it reminded me of Erik Satie or Debussy (only not at all sonically or rhythmically similar, obviously).

Regarding the album’s thickness, the sound design contributes to much of that perceived depth. There are near constant sounds moving throughout the stereo field. The sound design is not as futuristic as that on Amon Tobin’s ISAM, mostly because James writes a lot of music, and the sounds design and effects are there to help the music, not strictly be the music.

His mixing and mastering is absolutely unreal. He has clearly crafted a technique over the years that is undeniably his own, and it sounds glorious. Whatever it is he does to his drum mixing in particular has such a unique and pleasurable sound, I’ve never heard anyone else be able to touch it. The way he layers complex, busy sounds that can still be heard as beautiful, and the sound design still be appreciated, sounds magical and impossible. He’s an absolute master of sound.

Praise aside, there are a few areas I was disappointed about. One being that the emotional content was basically pedal to the metal the whole time and he only once took the opportunity to explore his softer side. Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2, this is not. There is no spiritual successor to “IZ-US,” “Nannou,” or “Avril 14th.” Nor did he take the time to delve into sound art as a piece, such as one of my past favorites, “Gwely Mernans.” The emotional content is a bit one-dimensional, but then again, he did include a techno-breakbeat track with hoover synths, so I guess that makes up for such an omission.

The other missed opportunity is dynamics. The whole album is absolutely in your face. However, some of that might have had to do with dynamics processing on the Verboten sound system. A closer listen with the consumer digital version to be released might prove to have larger dynamic range.

It’s difficult to give a comprehensive review after just one listen, however, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed the album. Although it doesn’t explore any really new territory, it is enjoyable from start to finish. It’s basically a bigger, badder version of the Richard D. James we’ve come to expect. If you already like Aphex Twin, you’ll enjoy this album. If you don’t already like Aphex Twin, I doubt you’ll find anything in this album to sway your perspective. I won’t be canceling my vinyl pre-order, on the contrary, I’m looking forward to listening more deeply and comprehensively than I already have.

Written by Panic Bomber